by Nigella Howarth
It is 2am and my phone is ringing. It’s an elderly relative. She’s feeling confused, is unable to find me and needs reassurance. I agree to pop round as it is only five minutes away.
Cup of tea made, reassurance given and my relative safely tucked back into bed, I arrive back home at 4am. Too awake to go back to sleep, I start on my to-do-list.
The day ahead looks manic. I have four client visits and a couple of meetings. All have the same degree of urgency and all need to be finished today.
I arrive at the office at 7.30am. My relative’s carer texts me. My relative’s apparently really very confused and saying she hasn’t seen me in days. I explain I had visited during the night and I asked for GP to be called to rule out another infection.
At 9am the GP phones, ‘You need to bring your relative to the surgery’. The appointment time clashes with a planned meeting for work. A quick reshuffle of appointments and I’m back home to accompany relative to the doctors, who is now running an hour late.
Antibiotics prescribed, quick return home, drink made and return to work. Now I’m running two hours late into an already manic day.
By 4pm I have caught up. All visits and meetings are attended, so I sit down to complete the admin. Another text arrives. My relative has been out looking for me, as I’m not at home. I ask the carer to reiterate I am at work and I will be round when I finish.
I quickly write-up my day and complete the urgent actions. Everyone around me is packing up for the day but I know my day is just about to start again.
I arrive and am greeted by an angry relative. ‘Where have you been all day? Why have you not been to see me? I have had no company all day and felt lonely!’
While I know this isn’t factual I can’t help but feel guilty. Dinner made, shopping done, housework done, lots of reassurance given, the carer arrives so I make my exit.
I arrive back at my own house at 7pm and wonder how long I will have before I am called out again. By 1am, I had received two phone calls but now all is quiet. It’s time for me to sleep before starting the cycle again. Sadly, sleep is not my friend tonight and I lay awake thinking of all those things I have yet to do.
Always on call
My caring role is now creeping into my work role. There is no opportunity to switch to being a social worker as I am always on call as a carer. I don’t notice how tired I have become as I’m too busy coping to pay attention.
I am relating to family carers in a way I have never done before, I can empathise deeply with their situation and need to remind myself at times to remain focused on the client and not try to rescue the carer. I have to take sudden days off and reschedule appointments, which makes me feel guilty but I would feel worse if I did not look after my own relative.
This type of cycle in my work and home life continued for six months. I never knew when the next phone call would be or what would happen next.
I received random phone calls from the police checking my welfare as I had been reported as a missing person. Doctors phoned for an update on my relative’s health, and mental health services reiterated ‘She does have capacity’. Carers phoned, ‘She won’t let us do anything she only wants you’.
What can help you
Following further ill health, my relative said she no longer felt safe at home, and she moved into a care home, which she said she loved.
It was a sigh of relief to know that she would be safe and well looked after, and that I could go back to being just a visitor and not on-call 24/7, but alas my hopes were short lived.
The care home had phone lines in every resident’s bedroom, so I continued to get calls during the day and night, needing reassurance and emotional support.
Being a social worker and family carer is very hard. Having that level of emotional attachment to someone but trying to ensure their needs are met and they receive all of the correct services is a struggle.
Balancing all of their appointments on top of your own daily work can be really stressful, especially when they constantly decline support from anyone but yourself.
But so many people do this on a daily basis its finding out what can help you and seeking support where needed.
What I took from my experience was to be honest with other professionals about the dual roles’ impact on yourself and request flexibility. You need to make sure your employer knows you are a family carer and request flexibility with your hours.
Workplace carer groups are a lifeline, as is ‘me’ time. Saying ‘no’ should never be a weakness.
The ability to do this is essential to sustain everything you do.
Nigella Howarth is a pseudonym. She is an adults’ social worker.